A man and a woman walk alongside each other, confused. He’s rambling incoherently, asking if his female companion knows he she is. She keeps trying to answer his question but can’t; she’s too distracted by half-remembered thoughts of pig farms and small, parasitic larvae that, when ingested, can let others control your actions. Neither are quite sure where they are—maybe it is a city street, or a creek bracketed by branches of brightly colored orchids, or an empty office building. I may be describing a scene from Upstream Color, the long-awaited sophomore feature from Primer’s director Shane Carruth. I might also be talking about the outside of the Eccles after the film’s premiere, as those who’d seen the movie started wandering out of the theater equally dazed and disoriented, trying to figure out what the fuck they just saw.
Challenging does not begin to describe what Carruth has concocted here: A formally audacious, narrative-schmarrative attempt to tackle heady ideas about PTSD, identity, divinity, good versus evil, free will, love and the process of healing via Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 transcendentalist manifesto Walden. At least, that’s what I think it’s getting at; I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie actually turned out to be about none of these things. The filmmaker has designed a cinematic Rorschach test, in which viewers see what they want to, and apply shape and structure as they see fit.
Here’s what I discerned from the inkblots: A shady character—press notes refer to him as The Thief, but he’d probably answer to Satan—harvests narcotic worms that allow him to put folks in a hypnotic, mind-controlled state. He force-feeds one to Kris (Amy Seimetz), keeping her in a trance as he depletes her checking account. Upon waking and finding one of these Cronenbergian buggers crawling under her skin, she attempts to extract one with a kitchen knife. Enter The Sampler (or hey, let’s call him God), an old man who runs a pig farm and uses sonic waves to remove said creatures. Left adrift after this experience, Kris is left to pick up the pieces of her life. She meets Jeff (Carruth) on a train. He’s also damaged. They fall in love. Things are tough. Memories slowly return, and with it, a sense of self. People read Walden.
From time-travelling to head-tripping: Carruth’s sophomore effort eschews the Escher-like gameplaying of his debut here but keeps the information overload, purposefully leaving out the rivets of connectivity that give movies coherence. Like The Thief, he’s out to put viewers into some sort of mesmerized high, albeit in the name of searching out…what? A deeper consciousness? A sense of being part of some grand scheme, in which one must have everything torn away before you’re simply left with what matters, i.e. love? A cleaner, closer shave?
The mind boggles, but Upstream Color is less about courting logic than creating an experience and crafting moments—a sound engineer wandering among the oblivious; two emotionally bruised lovers snuggling in a bathtub—which act as a legend to some unknown inward journey. Whether viewers want to go on this walkabout at all is another matter, and one could not be faulted for crying “pretentious bullshit” every time a synth-symphonic blast plays over a shot of someone looking lost. Personally, I need another viewing or three before I can even start to unpack this indie Tree of Life, yet something tells me there are actually epiphanies to be uncovered. Talk to me about again in ten years.
Those craving a different type of Malickian buzz could always turn to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a tale directed by Upstream’s editor, David Lowery, that doubles as a sort of extended homage to the older, reclusive filmmaker’s debut. Indeed, if one were to play a drinking game every time someone mentioned Badlands at the fest in conjunction with this gorgeous love story, he or she would need hospitalization. But the film’s on-the-lam lyricism and nebulous ’70s vibe begs comparisons from the get-go: A criminal (Casey Affleck) and his girl (Mara Rooney) get nabbed by the Texas fuzz. She’s let off the hook, tending to their little girl while her beau serves time; he decides to release himself of his recognizance, as he feels the institution no longer has anything to offer him. On the run he goes, circling back to be reunited with his dearest while avoiding a watchful sheriff (Ben Foster) and a trio of mysterious men armed with guns.
This story has been told a zillion different times, occasionally in the same it’s-magic-hour-every-hour way. So credit Lowery’s dedication to creating a specific atmosphere, as well as cinematographer Bradford Young’s lush imagery and the cast (including the might Keith Carradine), for lifting this beyond being just a faithful cover version of the ol’ outlaw blues. There’s real craft at work here, the kind that makes the film’s poetic ruralism elevate the proceedings and lends a palpable sense of foreboding as fate nudges everyone into place for the final act. Saints shouldn’t work as well as it does, but it does, beautifully and satisfyingly.
Elsewhere in the style-to-burn department, Park Chan-wook’s Stoker lays on the colorful pulpiness thickly and quickly: No sooner have the credits started than we’re immediately plunged into a world of pale young women traipsing around dark crimson rooms, brightly overlit kitchens and lush Freudian landscapes. India (Mia Wasikowska) has just lost her beloved dad in a car accident. Mom (Nicole Kidman, in full camp mode) is too busy fawning over the hitherto unknown Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), in town for the funeral, to either mourn or notice that there’s something peculiar about this stranger—or that people have started disappearing. The South Korean director’s first English-language film channels the Hammer horror movies of the mid- to late-’60s, when the English studio stopped raiding the Universal stable of classic monsters and started getting more lurid. It’s a Gothic tale told with Park’s usual grand-guignol flourishes, and even if the delicious aesthetic overkill can’t keep the ludicrousness at bay forever, it’s a fun ride on the way to falling apart at the seams.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear